A Metaphorical Violin (September 2017)

Good morning and welcome back! It’s great to see you all, relaxed and ready to go after a well-spent summer, full of enthusiasm and wondering what the year has in store for you. Well, I can’t tell you everything that lies ahead, the joys, challenges, excitements and heartbreaks but I can tell you a bit about what you can expect from the assemblies – one a week for thirty four weeks and an extra one, like this, in the abbey every month, means that in total you will have forty four or so whole-school assemblies plus about eight with your house.

From these I hope you will learn something – that’s their main purpose, to learn something that you might not otherwise have come across and I heartily commend to you the practice I adopted last year of writing notes in assemblies: not copying what was said word-for-word but listening with a pen in my hand ready to write down anything I particularly wanted to remember, or look up, or think about. As well as offering you gobbets of knowledge we will be offering advice – as I have already done this morning, of course – and the most frequent piece of advice will be this: read more. It’s good advice – reading makes you clever – and we’ll expand on the idea, letting you know when you should read and giving suggestions on what to read – a process that will start right now.

You see, there’s a book that I would love all Harris Westminster students to have read before they leave the school, a book that I think all Harris Westminster students should read before they leave the school. It’s on the shelves of the library and I’ve tweeted about it, but, given that it has never been borrowed, I guess none of you have yet read it. It’s this, “As I walked out one midsummer morning” by Laurie Lee who is better known for the description of his early 20th Century Gloucestershire childhood in "Cider with Rosie": a book that is well worth reading and whose title chapter tells of – well, maybe it’s best that I let you read that particular episode for yourself and move on to the sequel which describes him as a young man, a late teenager of about your age, leaving the Gloucestershire village that has been his entire world and walking out, across the countryside with a pack on his back containing a small rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits and some cheese.

There’s something amazing in the simple act of walking out. In another wonderful book, The Lord of The Rings, there is a poem called “The Road Goes ever on” which recurs, repeated several times, always slightly different but always with the same theme that when you step out onto the road outside your house you are embarking on an adventure in which that same road could lead anywhere. Roads all join up, you see, and the boring suburban street is the same as the country lane, the same as Whitehall, the same as the M1. The English Channel poses a problem but not an insuperable one because when Laurie Lee walked out that midsummer morning he went first to Southampton and then to London and then, via ship, to northern Spain from which he set out to walk, alone, across the Iberian peninsula.

This morning we are setting out on a new school year and ahead of us lie choices and opportunities and the decisions we make when we get to those junctions will determine our experience. For those of you in year 12 you are actually setting out on two years of experience, two years of opportunities and choices and the amazing thing about travel is that the more you choose to take an unfamiliar path, the more you take a chance and step into the unknown, the more choices and opportunities come your way. For those of you in Year 13 things are even more exciting: UCAS choices are upon you and you are planning the next adventure: one that will take you three years to complete. The plans you are making now are directed by the choices that you made last year (I hope the year 12s are listening) and, even more than that, the paths that will actually be open to you in August will be determined by the choices you make over the weeks to come. Back to Laurie Lee and the walk across Northern Spain. He writes about it very nonchalantly – in fact, he writes beautifully, as you would expect from a poet, and the book would be worth reading because of the way he uses language even if it weren’t for what we can learn from the content.

The walk across Northern Spain is not, however, something that you just do. It’s not like a ramble across Southern England – the mountains of Cantabria are well over 2000m high and to set out into the unknown on your own takes a kind of adventurousness that is poetical if not entirely wise. There’s something epically romantic about this enterprise – I see the author as a sort of Warrior Poet, stepping out fearlessly to face the unknown. The unknown was far from friendly, the walk far from easy – in one episode he got sunstroke and stumbled for miles, really rather ill, until he blundered into a small village cafe and had pity taken on him. He ends up in the middle of the Spanish Civil War and is rescued by a British gunship.

I see you as Warrior Poets – walking out into the unknown this late summer’s morning but I hope you’ll be wise ones and take a map, a hat, plenty of water and some sunscreen. Even with those precautions you shouldn’t expect the going to be always easy – there will be difficulties on the way but I hope you won’t turn back: part of the ambition that we have at the centre of Harris Westminster is the belief that we can do big things, that we can have big adventures, that we can overcome big difficulties and you don’t do that by giving up or turning back. Laurie Lee didn’t turn back. Once he’d recovered from his near-death experience he carried on through the towns and villages of Central Spain. There were no more moments of such physical danger but the low point of the book is not as he staggers over the crest of the hill with his brains cooking gently inside his skull, but a little later when his violin, its glue weakened from heat and rough treatment, finally falls apart. The violin, you see, was his security: whenever he came to a town he would pull it out and busk in the main plaza and down the well-frequented side-streets. With his violin he was confident he could earn enough to buy food and shelter but with the violin gone he lost confidence and was on the verge of turning back. Compared with that moment of loss being accidentally shelled by a confused destroyer pales into insignificance.

The question at the heart of the book is “How did a young man from rural Gloucestershire have the courage and confidence to walk out from the security of his family to face the wide world” and the answer is that he had a violin. I want you to have the courage and confidence to face the wide world, to dream huge dreams and then to look your ambitions squarely in the face and to go out there and grab them, and so I think you will need a violin, at least a metaphorical one. This is, I think, the heart of Harris Westminster. Joining us here is not quite walking out one midsummer morning – you are still living at home, still supported by your family – but it is quite deliberately looking forward to following that great road into the unknown. To have the confidence to do that you need to have confidence in your own self-sufficiency and many of the opportunities we offer are opportunities for you to practice, to see what you can do, what skills you have or can develop, but you also need a metaphorical violin and what we offer you is an academic education and qualifications at the end. Those pieces of paper are not the most wonderful bit of Harris Westminster – in fact I’m completely behind Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, who said this week that focusing on qualifications isn’t education it’s sticker-collecting. The best part of Harris Westminster are the amazing things you’ll learn and the opportunities and adventures that you’ll have here – but the qualifications are a little piece of magic, if you work hard and get nice letters on the pieces of paper they will become the metaphorical violin that will give you the confidence to take risks, to walk out into the unknown and although they’re not worth missing out on any opportunities (there’s no point having a violin if you don’t get used to taking it out of its blanket) they are worth every last ounce of your energy, every half hour you can find to spend in the library, every missed episode of Bake-Off that they cost you.

And that’s today’s advice – and should I have lost you with my extended metaphors I will provide you with a summary, but before I do I will step out of advisory mode because there are a small number of things about our scholarly life that go beyond good advice and are quite serious rules so if you’ve been dreaming of adventures or enjoying the glorious vaulting above you, listen up. Rule number one, in true Dumbledore mode, is that the basement is out of bounds to any student that does not want to die a horrible death. We have no three-headed dog but it’s not nice down there – by all means park your bike in the racks but don’t loiter and don’t go exploring – the same goes for the alleyway down the back of the school that leads to the basement: not a place to hang out, and the stairlift up to the eighth floor which is not a toy. Rule number two: I believe that you are all too intelligent and sensible to smoke and I wish to continue believing this so should you be secretly making bad decisions in this area please conduct your filthy habit away from the school: not on Tothill St, not on the roads that go from Tothill to Victoria Street, not on the Barclays corner and absolutely not in school. Rule three is that occasionally I like to go to the pub and have a quiet glass of lemonade and I’m sure that many of you do the same. However, when I’m drinking my lemonade I do not like to come across students and so I am telling you now that the pubs within two hundred metres of Steel House are my pubs – the rest of London is full of pubs, those are your pubs; feel free to enjoy a quiet glass of lemonade in your pubs but please don’t come into mine. Rules four, five and six are very straight forward: come to school every day unless you are in hospital or vomiting, be on time – even a minute late is an incredible level of rudeness when getting up half an hour earlier would have got you here in plenty of time and follow the school dress code which means wearing a jacket every day except the most bakingly hot days of summer when you can come to school in just a shirt if you’re sure you won’t get cold.

Six rules and we’ll get along just fine but that advice? The advice is to read, to read As I walked out one midsummer morning, to take opportunities that come your way even if you’re not sure how they’ll end up, to wear a hat when hiking and to work hard now so that your opportunities will be better later and so that you’ll have the security you need to take them. In future assemblies you can expect more advice but I’m unlikely to add to the rules. Thank you.